Blueberry bliss

The blueberry must be the queen of the berry species. Besides looking beautiful on the bush, what is more yum than a bowl of fresh blueberries? Although they grow quite OK in our area, getting them to bear prolifically isn’t so easy.

As you might have gathered from our three previous Homeland posts on blackberries, strawberries and raspberries, we were on quite a berry spree. But way before the berry craze hit me, we were already trying to grow blueberries. The berry craze, with its added health impetus, just invigorated me to grow more of them and better.

Right in the beginning of our vegetable bed layout, we selected the “back row” bed to plant blueberries. Heaven knows why we picked that particular bed, because it was a single layer bed – so it didn’t have a lot of space for new compost, it had the worst soil of all the beds and it was the closest to the thirsty Eucalyptus trees behind the vegetable patch. That particular bed also got the late afternoon shade before all the other beds. Our berries grew very slowly but they looked relative healthy so we thought they were OK – but the fact that they didn’t bear anything for two seasons should have been an early warning sign. But in our stupidity we persevered…

We knew they needed acidic soil and we knew a lot of people grow their blueberries very successfully in an azalea potting mix because it has the right acidity. However, we – to this day – couldn’t find an organic soil with the right acidity. We are dead-set against using an azalea mix with chemical fertilisers and components in. So we tried to do it ourselves. We added organic sulphur – which take about a year to dissolve, we watered them with a liquid organic sulphur and we mulched the bed with pine bark. I even tried regular waterings of diluted apple cider vinegar as a quick-fix in an attempt to drive the pH down quickly during the fruiting season. But still, they grew OK-ish but bore no significant fruit.

So we investigated further and wider. One potential remedy we stumbled across was to add coffee grinds to the bed. I started getting bags and bags of coffee grounds from Pam and Astrid at Bowside coffee shop in Bellbrae, one of my favourite stops on the way back from surfing Bells. After a season of this application, the pH didn’t change much, so I started measuring the pH of the coffee grinds and they came in at a high 6 or even 7. Coffee is obviously very acidic – that’s common knowledge – but what is not so common knowledge is that the grinds lose most of their acidity when the steam gets pumped through them; all the acidity goes into the coffee. You are better off pouring coffee over the beds than using the grinds, or you are better off using the grinds from a plunger. So nowadays I use the coffee grounds very productively on the “normal” compost heap, but more about that in another post.

I also noticed that that particular bed dried out very quickly – obviously because it was the closest to the eucalyptus trees. In order to overcome that, I laid an additional irrigation pipe to the bed so that it got an extra dose of greywater every fourth cycle. Little did I know this was a gross error! Firstly, our greywater is very alkaline and secondly I later learnt that blueberries are very fussy about the water they get – the best results are obtained with pure rainwater only. So inadvertently I gave them an additional nail in the coffin by feeding them greywater…

So with all that happening, when we created “Berry Corner”, it was time to redo the blueberries. As part of berry corner I created holes for 4 large new Brigittas and a raised bed for new smaller varieties like Sunshine Blue, Blue Rose and Denise. These beds were composted with a more acidic mushroom compost and to this was added an organic chicken manure and rice pellet mixture.

 

Blue berry brigittas

New Brigittas in berry corner

 

Brian from Bells Beach Organic Nursery (where I sourced the organic Blueberry plants from) gave me the advice that it was better to get the soil right and healthy first, and then try and manage the pH down. He also gave me the advice where to source the chicken manure – right on my way home from surfing.

 

Blue berry Brian

Brain from Bells nursery in BellBrae with a BlueBerry

 

The Brigittas only produced a few berries, but I’ve heard they take longer to bear. The smaller varieties produced enough berries during the first summer that we had to cover them with nets to keep the birds out. Not bowls full yet, but a few good hands full.

 

Blueberry net

Netted Blueberries

 

When I removed some vegetable boxes in the back yard, which never really produced because they were in the wrong place, in order to make space for fruit trees, I reused the wood to make more raised beds for more blueberries just outside of Berry Corner. I used the same acidic mushroom compost and chicken manure and rice pellet mixture. These beds have also been sprinkled with organic sulphur, which should start diluting once the ground starts warming up next summer. If there are dry patches during winter, they will get liquid sulphur too, otherwise they will just have to wait for their pH to be managed down once summer arrives. In these we transplanted some of the stronger blueberries from the struggling “back row” and I augmented them with more young plants obtained from Brian at Bells Organic Nursery. Even only two weeks after transplanting, the “back row” blueberries already looked a lot better.

 

Blueberries new beds

New blueberry beds

 

Now we can’t wait for next summer to arrive! Although I have one dilemma to face – do we net the individual beds and plants, or do bite the bullet and net the whole berry corner as well as the new “outside” boxes in one permanent net? What wins – aesthetics, work comfort or productivity?

Lessons learnt

We have learnt so many lessons about blueberries, it’s just not funny. Here are the most important ones:

  • Blueberries will only bear well if the soil acidity is right, despite looking good and healthy.
  • However, having said that, it’s more important to get the soil condition and compost content right before worrying too much about the pH. You can then manage the pH down using an organic sulphur.
  • Coffee grinds are great for compost, but they don’t really push the pH down by much.
  • Use only rainwater for blueberries.
  • Make sure they don’t dry out – but watch out for overwatering too.
  • Location, location, location.

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